I wrote this back in 2001, a year after the raid on the Gonzalez’s household that ended the fight to keep Elián free.
Much water has passed under the bridge since, but the memory of the predawn raid still lingers, an open wound in my soul.
I still remember Elián every Thanksgiving Day.
I haven’t been back to the shopping center in this story in almost a decade, my routine changed since, and with the change in route my coffee spot has changed as well.
El Viejo is real, his story is real…to many more than himself.
I hope he is well, and that this story does him justice.
El Viejo, like the gentleman from “Walking on Freedom Road” are la vieja guardia. Leaving us far too soon, leaving us with far too much left to teach us, and to teach the nation.
His story, is the story of so many.
Canto Libre. “…and I shall sing my freedom song.”
By Luis Gonzalez
I’m not sure that anyone really knows his name; we all just call him “el Viejo”.
Most of us think that he must be seventy or so, but it’s kind of hard to tell. He’s thin and wiry and built like a man who has worked the earth most of his life. His skin is that shade of bronze that comes from the farms and the fields, not from beaches and pools; it looks as tough as leather. There is always a smile on his face, or maybe it’s more a permanent squint than a smile, we can’t figure that out either, and he sings softly as he works. Can’t hear the words to the song, but we can all hear him sing.
He wears a sombrero de Yarey (a Cuban a wide brimmed straw hat, not like the Mexican variety, and more like a Panama than a Stetson) every day, blue/grey work pants (the kind that employers provide for you) tucked into his leather work boots, and a long sleeved shirt even in the hottest days. There’s a machete hanging from his belt. He reminds me of my grandfather; another one who never forgot that he worked the good earth for a living.
He sweeps the sidewalk and the parking lot at the small strip mall in Northwest Miami-Dade, just a little north of Hialeah, that is home to the walk-up cafeteria where I get my afternoon shot of energy before heading home for the day. They are a unique South Florida thing, these walk-up window restaurants. You can get a café con leche (latté) and some hot buttered Cuban bread for breakfast, a good, hot Cuban sandwich and a papaya milk shake for lunch, or a guava jelly filled pastry and a cortadito,(two ounces steamed milk, two ounces Cuban coffee and a teaspoon of sugar) for a mid afternoon pick-me-up. I like to stop in for a café cubano and some good conversation.
El Viejo has this bumper sticker-covered cart, filled with the tools of his trade that he pushes all day long as he polices his little corner of the world. It is, without doubt, the cleanest strip mall parking lot in all of Miami-Dade.
Some of us have taken to picking up the occasional bumper sticker along our travels for him and he always finds some place for them. All the good ones get the permanent spot on the body of the cart, the rest on the movable garbage cans, and some even on the bright orange traffic control cones that he uses when he has some detailed work to do on a parking spot. On the very best location on the front refuse can you can see my “Viva Las Vegas” and my “Visit Hoover Dam” stickers; someone else had brought back another one from Nevada, it sits at the very bottom of the can, on the part that gets hidden from view by the cart’s base, and you could still barely read “Visit the Chicken Ranch” on it.
It is the actual frame of the cart that holds the jewels of the collection. The “Bush/Cheney 2000″ stickers, the “Free Oscar Biscet Now!” stickers, the “Radio Mambí- La Grande.!”, all occupy the places of honor, colorful and bright, these are the things that run near and dear to his heart. Funny thing is, that the best spot of all is empty, no bumper sticker.
Just some fading words, scrawled there with a penknife by a hand maybe not comfortable with either the words or the language that read “Freedom for Elián”.
El Viejo likes to talk sometimes, he lets me buy him a cup of café when we do, and he likes his cigars. He used to swear that there weren’t any good cigars anymore, “used to” that is. The day he became a citizen I brought him a hand rolled Churchill from my cigar joint to celebrate the occasion. He still talks about that one.
He swore in just a few months ago, years after being eligible to take the oath. I had occasion to sit and talk with him for quite some time as he smoked his congratulatory cigar the day after the citizenship ceremony, it was a cool and breezy afternoon, and we sat at an outdoor round concrete table and bench, placed there for those who wanted to sit and eat rather than stand. We ordered two medianoche sandwiches and two mamey milkshakes (you non-Cubans will simply have to look those up) and chatted for close to an hour as we enjoyed the warm sun and the food.
He told me he was born in vuelta abajo, that’s my family’s neck of the woods…tobacco country. The Western end of the Island is a beautiful and fertile land of mountains and tall-as-the-sky palm trees where the soil is a red as blood, and it gets into every crevice of every single thing it can reach, including your bloodstream. The sky is a blue unlike any I have seen since, and the ocean breezes reach inland and do an eternal dance with the palm fronds and the clouds. There’s no place as beautiful on earth as the place where one is born, and I guess that’s the case for el Viejo and me.
He worked a small farm there, like his father and his father’s father before him. He grew bread fruit, aguacate and mamey to sell in town. He kept a few chickens, some pigs and a cow for the family to consume. “I always had some extra milk and a chicken if someone was having a hard time and needed help. That’s what neighbors are for”, he told me.
He was married once, to a young woman he had courted for three years, a neighbor’s daughter “she was a little frail for country life” – he said. “It was like keeping a porcelain doll in a barnyard. But we shared a good life and made a home ourselves nevertheless.”
“We had a son right away, in those days, in the farm . . . well, you had kids right away, and then she didn’t get pregnant anymore. The doctor said it was better that way, he didn’t think she could survive childbirth again.
She loved that boy, frail and pale like her, with eyes that looked old somehow. I loved him too, he was my son, but there was something between those two that was stronger than love. In those days she hung on to him like he was somehow her salvation, or maybe her redemption, and when I looked into my son’s eyes I believed that he was her salvation. The eyes haunt me even today, so many years later.
I used to listen to her sing to him at night, when he nuzzled against her breast before bedtime, he would drink from her and his eyes never left hers, and then they would close slowly, a little at a time. It was a song without words, but it was their song, and they understood it. Years later, as my boy grew, she would sit by the kitchen door and sing her song without words, and no matter where he was, he would hear her, and he would come to her.
Then Fidel came, and things changed.
At first nothing bad happened, yes we heard people talk, hushed talk about a firing squad here and a hanging there, but we didn’t see anything and life remained the same for a while. Until they came one day, they came and announced that my farm was now the property of “the people”, and I couldn’t eat the fruit from my own trees, or my chickens, or my pigs, or drink the milk from my cow.
It was years after that I guess when she approached me, in bed, late one night. We spoke in whispers, afraid of the very walls, fear was everywhere those days. She wanted us to leave, to take our son and go to Miami, she had heard from some family who lived on the Coast and they would be leaving soon, she wanted him to grow up free, and unafraid. He was a young man by this time, tall and quiet and she knew that he would not do well in the military once his turn came up.
We fought bitterly that night, this was my home and my country and I would not leave it. I would not leave the little track of land left to me. Fidel would be gone someday and things would get back to normal, like before he came. I believed that.
‘Yo nací Cubano, and I will die one right here!’
Those words…I can still hear myself saying them. I yelled at her that night. I had never raised my voice at her before.
We received a letter a few months later, from Miami. The letter said that her elderly uncle didn’t survive the trip, they buried him at sea, but the rest made it. They were all living in a small apartment and things were…well, I guessed the word must have been wonderful, but it was blacked out by the censors. She cried all day.
Our son died a few years later. He was somewhere in the Congo, sent there with his Army unit. They said he died from a fever but they never sent the body back so I don’t know if that was thr truth.
She stayed in bed for weeks, singing the song I used to hear her sing for our boy, that song without words. She died a few months later. Everyone said that it was from a broken heart, and I knew that was the truth
I had nothing then. No reason to live. So I left the farm and the small mound under the royal palms where I buried her holding his picture. I took some boards and some old inner tubes and set out to sea to die. I wanted to die, but I made it. The good Lord saw fit to punish me, and I lived.
I’ve lived my life waiting to die since then, doing my job and going through the functions. I had everything my pride denied them and it’s burned a hole in my soul, everyday it burned. Then I heard the news about a little boy on an inner tube on the radio, and when I got home I watched it on television. A little boy was on a stretcher, covered with blankets. It was the saddest face I’ve ever seen. Then he looked at the camera with eyes old beyond their years, and I heard a song without words.
But Elián was safer out on the ocean on an inner tube than while standing on US soil. Out there he was in God’s hands and watched over by the souls of the lost on the trail of tears…hermanos y balseros alike. On land we had him. I still can’t believe what happened really happened, or that it happened here.
You know, this is where she wanted to come, this is where she wanted him to grow into manhood, this is what I denied them both. I denied them both their chance to be free in order to satisfy my own need to hang on to something that was already gone. I was wrong and they paid the price, and I am dead because of it.”
There was a long pause. I walked to the window and ordered two café cubanos, I sat back down and took the first sip of the strong coffee. El Viejo was silent for a long time so I told him a little about myself and my work, and I mentioned that wrote as a hobby. I told him that I was writing a story about Elián, he wished me luck and we became silent again while we finished our coffee.
Then the silence was broken by the sound of a soft song.
It was a song of hope and of yearning; it was a song of redemption and sorrow, and a song of Freedom. It was haunting and simple and somehow familiar, like one of those wordless songs mothers sing their babies to sleep with when they wake up in the middle of the night.
“Yo canto por Elián”– he said. “So that he can find his way back. He will someday you know, I believe that. On that day I will put a bumper sticker that says ‘Elián is Free’ in the center spot, right there for the entire world to see, and I shall sing my freedom song for the whole world to hear.”
I drove home with the radio off that day, I wanted silence and time to think. And the thought struck me that el Viejo may be right, that maybe Elián will do just as he said, and that time really is on our side. I wondered how much it would take to wash away the stain of the raid and the lies. I wondered how long it would take before we remembered the true meaning of freedom, and whether we would have to lose it before we learned what we had lost.
And as I wondered about these things, a song without words sprung from my lips, and drifted off into the Heavens above.